Vietnamese fishermen on their way out to sea (Photo: Edyta Roszko)
20 Aug 2019

Crossing new and old borders: Fishers expanding beyond the South China Sea

As Chinese fishing vessels work their way towards East and West Africa and Vietnamese fishers push further into the Pacific, they are frequently labeled a threat to both the ecosystem and to the livelihoods of fishers in Africa and Oceania. But Chinese and Vietnamese fishers are not mere opportunists. Nor are they doing something new. New CMI researcher Edyta Roszko has received an ERC Starting grant for a project that for the first time maps the global expansion of fishers outwards from the South China Sea. Her project aims to advance our understanding of the actions, connections, motivations and patterns behind this transoceanic expansion.

When the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea established the right to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone at sea, countries rushed to declare sovereignty, thereby practically creating borders in the sea. What used to be common fishing grounds, was turned into territorially bounded nation-states’ property.

The South China Sea, with its abundant natural resources on which people in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia depend, turned into a hotspot with increasingly militarized maritime borders. Fishers who were used to roaming freely on the high seas were now supposed to relate to invisible national borders in a marine space where maritime cultures had thrived on coexistence and mutual trade for centuries.  

Pushing outwards from the South China Sea
The militarisation of the maritime borders in the South China Sea has changed the way of life for local fishers as well as the mode of operation for the larger-scale fishing industry in the area. It has also changed patterns of mobility and spurred transoceanic expansion.

-The fishing grounds have changed. Fishers are pushed further outwards from the South China Sea, but since fishers are also traders, their interests merge but also - at times - collide with those of African and Pacific fishers, says Roszko.


Vietnamese fishers are expanding out from the South China Sea in their wooden boats. (Photo: Edyta Roszko)


The Vietnamese and Chinese fishers’ expansions are undoubtedly a response to geopolitics and shifting policies in the South China Sea. But it is also a life strategy. For both Chinese and Vietnamese fishers the geographical expansion is a matter of navigating both the seas and the market at a time where they are increasingly being dispossessed of their customary fishing grounds in the South China Sea.

What connects these fishers with the distant places and people in African and Pacific waters is China’s growing demand for marine goods and Vietnam’s expanding consumption of endangered species through common networks of trade.

Globalizing regional patterns of harvesting and trading
As the Vietnamese and Chinese fishers’ territories are expanding, they take their methods of extracting marine resources with them. In the South China Sea, Vietnamese and Chinese fishers exploit marine resources in such quantities that it prevents other users from accessing them, thereby turning massive exploitation into territorial claims.

-We are only now beginning to see how Vietnamese and Chinese fishers are globalising their regional pattern of harvesting and trade from the South China Sea to Oceania and Africa, says Roszko.

Currently, statistical information about the environmental destruction of oceans, about the expansion of commercial fishing fleets, about vessel tonnage and catch, and about poaching and illegal fishing is plentiful. Yet, we do not know how these things happen, via which connections and networks.

-We know that Chinese fishers harvest off the coast of Ghana, Madagascar and Somaliland. We know that Vietnamese fishers go to western Australia, New Caledonia, or Fiji in their small wooden boats.  But we do not yet know how they go there and what their relations to local fishermen are. In order to grasp the precise connections, motivations and actions behind those numbers we need qualitative research, involving long-term anthropological fieldwork based on deep knowledge of region and language competence, says Roszko.

Building on ancient networks
The expansion to other seas is nothing new. In fact, the militarisation of the maritime borders in the South China Sea has simply led fishers to intensify pre-nation-state patterns of mobility while at the same time producing new mobilities that operate under the radar of states. In the 18th and 19th centuries, China’s demand for high-value marine products required the labor of various types of fishers and sometimes specially trained slaves in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. China’s expanding market in luxury commodities in the 18th century led to overfishing and environmental destruction in parts of Borneo, the Celebes Sea, and the Sulu Sea, pulling various harvesters of marine goods out of their waters and pushing them to the coasts of Papua New Guinea and Australia.

-We tend to overlook the 18th century trade with marine products, as well as the interconnected historical and economic trajectories of China’s and Vietnam’s fisheries. Although it is not being talked about much, history shows that the enormous pressure on species that are currently on the verge of extinction, like some turtles and sharks, is not a new phenomenon. The demand for luxury or exotic marine products, for consumption or for use in medicine, has pushed fishers to go both further and deeper to satisfy the demands of Chinese customers, says Roszko.


Vietnamese women handling cured sea cucumbers to be sent to China and an increasing domestic market. (Photo: Edyta Roszko)


Widening the scope of research
The TransOcean project will cover wide ground in studying how Chinese and Vietnamese maritime and marine mobilities interact with those of Oceanian and African fishers and with what effects. TransOcean will provide a novel theoretical analysis of the fishers’ transoceanic expansions and the new configurations of mobility that these expansions produce. The dramatic impact on the ecosystem and the global economy, and the real potential of armed conflict, make the transoceanic expansion of fishing a crucial area of study. The findings will therefore be valuable for both scientists, policy makers and practitioners.

- Since 2016, the number of Vietnamese and Chinese boats fishing outside the realm of the South China Sea has increased rapidly. The United Nations has already started a process to create a new High Seas Treaty that will help to regulate high seas commons. Some economists argue that reforming policies may not be enough to rescue the oceans and call for a complete closure of the high seas for fishing. We need better understanding of the actions, connections, motivations and patterns behind the transoceanic expansion of fishers who are also drivers of territorial enclosure, says Roszko.

Roszko herself has extensive experience with research on fisheries in Vietnam and China. She also brings three post docs to CMI as part of the project. It is not yet clear which specific countries they will cover, but Roszko is building a team of complementary skills and area expertise to provide a full picture of the situation in the South China Sea and the areas that are affected by the expansion of Chinese and Vietnamese fisheries out of the South China Sea.

The TransOcean project fits very well into CMI’s existing profile, but that is only part of the reason why Roszko wanted to come to Bergen. Her ambition is to widen the connections and scope for her research.

-I see an opportunity to build research and projects in a long-term perspective at CMI. I also see the opportunity to put a mark on this issue in a city that is a hub for both development research and research on the oceans, and the interlinkages between the two, she says.


Name: Edyta Roszko

Discipline: Social anthropology

Research interests: Maritime territorialisation, militarisation of oceans and seas, human security, markets and historical anthropology.

Geographic orientation: Vietnam, China, Africa and Oceania